LOADED OBJECTS, at the Carrack Gallery through 10/26

Stencil for Bull Jumping Shark tag that's showing up on the hoardings of various high-dollar developments in Durham. Anonymous.

Stencil for the Bull Jumping Shark tag that’s showing up on the hoardings of various high-dollar developments in Durham, perhaps as a warning. Anonymous.

The Carrack Modern Art Gallery, should you have never ventured the stairs leading up from the bakery at 111 West Parrish Street in downtown Durham, is an unusual place. It’s a zero-commission gallery, which means that if an artwork sells, the artist gets all the money. It also means that the gallery runs on grants, donations and labors of love–and the labor is not inconsequential. Shows at the Carrack turn over every two weeks. The current show, Loaded Objects, up through this weekend only, has been curated by Chris Vitiello as part of his omnivorous love of the arts. Vitiello (who is currently visual art reporter and critic for IndyWeek) has a wide-ranging mind and a sensitive eye, the nerve path of which seems to be routed through his heart.

Plaything, mixed media, by Cody Platt, with a Jim Lee photograph in the background.

Plaything, mixed media, including breakfast cereal, by Cody Platt, with a Jim Lee photograph in the background.

By this I mean he feels what he sees, and makes astute connections between images and ideas, weaving those connecting points together in webs of words. He has chosen objects and images that link for him under the rubric of “utility.” Vitiello is also a poet (and appears frequently as the notorious Poetry Fox, to be found pounding out poems on demand on a classy old manual typewriter in unlikely locations around town), and to follow his logic requires the viewer to open the sluice gates on her own poetic imagination, even though Vitiello has written cogent (and sometimes hortatory) wall texts to accompany the artworks.

All significant artwork could be described as “loaded.” Its power lies in communicating things for which beloved language is inadequate. In this gallery full of extremely different works, Vitiello seems to have put together a kind of free-verse praise song lauding the wondrous variety of things and images that can stop us in our tracks with their bullets of truth. His taste is catholic as to media and subject, but he has a strong bias toward the well-made, which helps the viewer feel the connections as the eye moves among the objects.

There aren’t many paintings in the show, but two paintings by Bonnie Melton could constitute a show in themselves.  A photograph can only suggest the prickly, passionate beauty of her painted surfaces, with their signifying shapes and vibrating color interactions.

Backstitch (Embroidery for Jean), oil on wood, Bonnie Melton.

Backstitch (Embroidery for Jean), oil on wood, Bonnie Melton.

Once you can tear your eyes away from Melton’s work, it is not difficult to hopscotch to the next texture, the next message. You may end up feeling like St. Sebastian, though, shot full of arrows, art arrows.

Curator Vitiello and some of the exhibition artists will talk about the work in the gallery, 7:30 p.m. 10/23. Free.

Gallery shot of the Carrack's LOADED OBJECTS, curated by Chris Vitiello. L to R, works by Andre Leon Gray, Anonymous, Tama Hochbaum.

Gallery shot of the Carrack’s LOADED OBJECTS, curated by Chris Vitiello. L to R, works by Andre Leon Gray, Anonymous, Tama Hochbaum.

Hearts and Flowers: Torry Bend’s Magic

Street Signs Center for Literature and Performance premieres Torry Bend’s most beautiful work yet at Manbites Dog Theater.

Grace's fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace’s fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Making art about love–in the widest sense of the word–and the precarious grandeur of life–in its broadest sense–takes a valiant dreamer. Durham has been blessed with the presence of one such in the person of Torry Bend, who makes object theater works that require both a multi-dimensional imagination and a high level of craft in multiple media. She first blew our collective mind with The Paper Hat Game; then collaborated with the musical group Bombadil on Love’s Infrastructure, while she was teaching in Theatre Studies at Duke. She’ll be leaving us shortly to teach at the University of Minnesota, but before leaving, she’s presenting us with–literally–the gift of Grace, in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace lives alone in a neat little house, and flies a lot on business. In the unhurried opening sequence, we see Grace in a hurry, running with her roller bag out of her house, to the airport, through the airport and onto the plane, checking her watch, scrolling and tapping on her phone all the while. But this trip is unlike any other. Idly rifling through the seat-back pocket, she finds an envelope inscribed READ ME. On the flap is a Munich address. Inside she finds a beating heart.

And so, like Alice, we and Grace find ourselves suddenly in wonderland.

This magical tale unfolds over 90 wordless minutes, and each of those minutes fills the viewer with amazement. I refrain here from describing too much, because I hope that many who read this will promptly obtain tickets to experience all the surprises in person. Those who have seen Bend’s previous works will not, however, be surprised to know that, for all its sweetness, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground is threaded with danger, pain and sorrow, as well as being punctuated with sly humor and layered with clever references. Torry Bend can elicit as much emotion with her objects as one would expect from live actors. You may find yourself crying for a puppet, and quivering with joy at this manifestation of the idea of the eternal return on the great wheel of life.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Part of the magic is made from Bend’s story and her extraordinary gift for visual storytelling, but a nearly equal portion is supplied by her collaborators in light and sound and puppetry. Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas have created wonderful video that meshes with the physical world of Bend’s set, and Liz Droessler designed the additional lighting. Jil Christensen composed and designed an outstanding sound score that is crucial to our understanding of the flow of the action. Anna Nickles and Sarah Krainin designed and built Grace, and Jamie Bell, Drina Dunlap, Amanda Murray and Becky Woodrum activated the puppet and the moving scenery, as well as creating shadow actions. On the 17th, their concentration was exemplary, and they carried out the complex choreography with great skill and aplomb, nearly effacing themselves in their service to the objects.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Bend sees her stage/screen worlds and their characters from multiple points of view and at radically varying scales (again recalling Alice) and to transfer her inner vision to our eyes, she combines the newest technologies, like live video capture, with one of the oldest theatrical techniques–shadow casting. Her backdrop/screen is like a large cheval glass–a stand mirror on pivots–but made of steel and Plexiglas. Thus the surface of Grace’s world angles and flips, with video imagery slipping onto and over it, and moveable Plexi shelves appear, raise and lower according to the needs of the action. It’s incredibly complex. One of my personal favorite aspects of Bend’s work is her penchant for making objects (such as planes or trains) and layering video of the same thing over the object being manipulated by people. So we have a “toy” plane overlaid by an image of a “real” plane, yet the real plane that exists in our physical world is the artful toy being played through space by sentient humans.

The Water is Wide. "There is a ship and she sails the sea. She's loaded deep, as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I'm in, I know not how I sink or swim." Photo: Nick Graetz.

The Water is Wide. “There is a ship and she sails the sea. She’s loaded deep, as deep can be.
But not so deep as the love I’m in, I know not how I sink or swim.” Photo: Nick Graetz.

This beautiful, heart-full artwork was nurtured in The Process Series: New Works in Development at UNC-Chapel Hill, and produced for StreetSigns by Elisabeth Lewis Corley as part of Manbites Dog Theater‘s Other Voices Series. It plays at Manbites Dog through Nov. 1. The theater’s lobby gallery is showing related works by Ann Corley Silverman that are also worth your close attention. For tickets go here.

A New Play On An Old War: The ArtsCenter premieres commissioned work INTO THE BREACH

Opening tonight at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: INTO THE BREACH, Ian Bowater’s new play, commissioned by the ArtsCenter for its season examining World War I. Bowater, who is English and has had a long career in theatre and film, has crafted a thoughtful play centered on a group of “Shakespeare’s Boys” and their schoolmaster from Stratford-on-Avon, who all leap or are pulled into the vortex of the war.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war. Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war.
Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

After Taylor Mac’s flippant brief gloss on WWI in his recent performance in Chapel Hill, Bowater’s play is refreshingly serious. Its characters are more types than individuals (I saw a dress rehearsal), but they are real types (including the very English proto-Nazi), and through them we can glimpse the way those types both shape and are shaped by large historical forces. They are the men–the glorious dead–whose names etch memorials in every English village and town, and in towns all over the then far-flung British Empire.

The boys studied and played Shakespeare’s Henry V at school, and in this play, they study it again as they prepare a show for the other men at a hospital not far from the battlefront. The play reveals different things to the men now, and they find the leaden tones along with the golden in the great speeches, as they grapple with the (im-)morality of Realpolitik. They are joined by Laurel Ullman as Nurse Ailey/the Angel of Mons.

Director Gregor McElvogue, also British, brings his skill at eliciting both the brutish and the bruised from the performers, and with his usual careful reserve, gives us a fresh context for the war that did not end all wars. The waste of that war becomes more poignant and pitiful when we see it driven (in part) by the pride of “the men of Agincourt,” “the band of brothers,” who had so recently celebrated the harvest with song and beer.

The big surprise of the show is the songs. The cast does a wonderful job, from the harvest songs to popular ditties (inky-dinky parlez-vous!), and the song and dance routines make the pall all the darker in contrast.

The show runs Oct. 10-12 and 16-19.

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